Reading Science, Nature, and PLoS

By Paul Bouissac

As a global phenomenon, semiotics appears to have developed, over the last fifty years, as an academic culture rather than a scientific paradigm. If the last congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies (Lyon, July 7-12) is indicative of the general situation, the semiotic institution provides a fairly informal, rather club-like forum where friends (and foes) meet, deliver papers to each other and perpetuate, with greater or lesser felicity, the immemorial conversation about signs. Assuredly, there are a few notable exceptions and, moreover, it can be pointed out that the networking of scholars across countries, cultures and disciplines is a positive thing in itself in as much as our interactions contribute to the emergence of both a common language of scholarship and a common code of values. But nobody attending such an event expects to witness a breakthrough, to be upset or enlightened by a controversial discovery, or to experience the shock of a paradigm shift. The proceedings yield a rather low rate of information. It appears as an oasis of epistemological conservationism impervious to the sea of changes that today keeps modifying human knowledge in all domains of inquiry. The diagnosis may sound severe but is it not symptomatic of this state of affairs that the six keynote speakers at the last IASS congress were all seasoned (male) semioticians mostly from the Humanities?

When, more than a century ago, the semiotic agenda was tentatively outlined from two different perspectives by Saussure and Peirce, their bold assertions were at the cutting edge of the thinkable. It even appeared to them to be so daunting that they shied away from going beyond programmatic statements. Saussure’s laconism and Peirce’s prolixity equally betray in contrasted forms their epistemological frustration. It is worth noting that both were keenly atuned to the science of their times, and, certainly at least in Saussure’s case, the edification of semiology was projected toward a time when a new psychology would emerge, which he envisioned as totally different from the psychology of his time without being able to figure out what it would be.

The rediscovery of Peirce’s and Saussure’s seminal agenda, some fifty years later, triggered new epistemological enthusiasms and anxieties, in dialogue with important developments in psychology, linguistics, anthropology and the emerging sciences of information. Then, over the years, semiotics was conveniently, perhaps opportunistically, downgraded to a mere “doctrine” and the pioneers’ tentative but daring sketches were elevated to the status of canonic texts. In spite of themselves, Peirce and Saussure have become the authoritative voices from which semiotic legitimacy is derived. Their heuristic statements have solidified into dogmas. The doctrine of semiotics now seems often to consist of an endless exegesis of the pronouncements of these cultural heroes.

Obviously, they have been shortchanged. Their genuine protestations have been ignored. Today, Peirce and Saussure would read Science, Nature ... and PLoS rather than the exegeses of their epigones. They formulated the problems they tried to solve in view of the scientific knowledge of their times and their respective philosophical traditions. These problems are still relevant but need to be reconceptualized. A century of scientific revolutions has drastically modified our epistemological landscape. New means and methods of investigating, new models and new theories increasingly force upon us constant mental adjustments and open up new opportunities to tackle fundamental issues. Because semioticians have been trained to think abstractly in pluridisciplinary perspectives, they should be particularly qualified to perceive the consequences entailed by these various advances across the board of human knowledge for the understanding of the processes that sustain the construction of meaning and the possibility of communication.

Science, Nature and PLoS are channels of communication, both in print and online, through which research results in all scientific disciplines first appear after a rigorous peer review process. Of course, nobody can claim the universal competence that would allow her or him to expertly peruse and appreciate the full contents of these journals. However, there is not a single issue of these periodicals which does not offer at least some shards of noteworthy knowledge that semioticians could usefully integrate into their cognitive landscapes. Some reports may invite legitimate criticisms, some others may trigger changes of perspective, but all would provide better grounds for arguments than the mere thought experiments or worn-out examples that semioticians are all too often prone to profer.

But there is more. It may come as a surprise to many that news and articles directly relevant to semiotic matters often appear in these journals. To wit, the Science issue of July 2, 2004, features a report on the life course of scripts, based on the proceedings of a recent conference on the “Disappearance of Writing Systems” that was held in Oxford in March 2004. The same issue publishes the results of research bearing upon remote spatial memory that should provide relevant information for those concened with the semiotics of space. A random probe of recent issues of Nature yields, for instance: a “news feature” about data mining and the sharing of information among scientists; a “letter” [an anachronistic term which designates here a scientific article, and is a reminder that Nature was founded in 1869] concerning the decoding of human facial features (April 1, 2004); a review of two books on the neurological basis of consciousness; an essay on anthropomorphism; and a “letter” on auditory spatial cues (April, 8, 2004); a report on perceptual multimodality by Richard Gregory, a researcher who is occasionally quoted in visual semiotics (August 19, 2004). As to PLoS, the latest issues include a report on cultural transmission among primates (May 2004); an article on the retrieval of lost spatial memory (August 2004); and the review of a play which explores the interface between genetics and the politics of race and gender (September 2004).

Links to some other points of entry in sources of information that semioticians could usefully tap on the web can be found among those listed in the section RESEARCH TOOLS of the www.semioticon.com Of special interest is fMRIDC, which provides free access to research papers in the neurosciences, including the cognitive neurosciences. This site, which is maintained by Dartmouth College, is sponsored by prestigious scientific institutions. Its aim is to make new data accessible to researchers across disciplines. It gives yearly awards to the best papers written by humanists who have produced innovative interpretations of the empirical results published on this resource website. This invitation to interpret scientific data beyond their limiting disciplinary horizons could afford semioticians with unique opportunities to play a crucial part in the bridging of the two cultures while renewing and updating their own problematics.

Let us hope that the new president of the International Association for Semiotic Studies will endeavor to promote a policy of creative dialogue with the sciences and that the next congress of the association will feature both prominent scientists and brilliant humanists as keynote speakers, with a commitment to equal gender representation.